selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

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Mon, 12 Apr 1999 12:51:03 EDT

From: <>
Date: Mon, 12 Apr 1999 12:51:03 EDT
Subject: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

In a message dated 4/12/99 8:54:12 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

>>>user-illusion", but Blackmore disagrees, claiming that the
>illusion isn't even benign - it's pernicious in that our
>memes are deceiving us into thinking we have control.

That is to say that the memes too have bought into the illusion that we
exist and therefore try to control us? And this despite the fact that the
memes are really the ones in control!<<

Bill, I love your characterization of this conundrum. And yes, I still think
that Blackmore and others have gone a little too extreme on this "self is an
illusion" bend. Yesterday, I bought her book, however, after browsing it for
a while in the bookstore. I do think that she is giving the subject some
vigorous treatment, and I look forward to finishing it. I am sensing that
she may have a lot to say that is not entirely erroneous.

But I think I may have sensed the point at which she tends to go off the
tracks a bit. In the first chapter she has a sub-heading called "What Makes
Us Different".
She seems to dwell on what it is about humans that makes us different from
animals, which is really as I see it a distinctly different philosophical
issue than memes and memetics, though when we have a better undertanding of
memes and memetics, I think we may be able to formulate better questions
about humans as animals.

Apparently she thinks that most people would answer that the thing that makes
us different is that we have "selves" and such. She may be right about that,
though I personally don't see that as terribly important as many others
might. Her thesis is that the thing that makes humans different is our
capacity for imitation - hence leading into memes and so forth. On that
point I am prone to agree with her as well. However she feels she must
stretch on a little further and say something about "selves" since she
percieves that most people would see that as the hallmark of humanity.

So she conlcudes "the self is an illusion". THAT conclusion was totally
unnecessary IMO, however I can see the provocative responses that asserting
it brings. And I think that hooking that in with Buddhism and whatnot
guarantees an audience that her book might not have recieved without such
provocation. As provocative as it is, I think making this assertion is a
little irresponsible toward making the case for memetics.

Assuming that this book will be the first in a series of various efforts to
make the case for a science of memetics, this provocateur stance may be no
real problem in the big picture, and there is always the possibility that it
helps by drawing attention (though sometimes the wrong KIND of attention can
be more dangerous than much less attention). On the other hand, should this
not take off relatively soon, I think this provocation is going make the work
look a little too flakey in the future for people that might otherwise take a
second look at the subject after the party is over. So anyhow, since the
deed is done, I hope the trick works, but I think that I will continue to
view that stunt as very intemperate - and of course I may be wrong.

My personal view of the treatment of self, although I don't personally think
that "self" is necessarily the sine qua non of humanity, I do think that it
plays a VERY important role in the hardware that underlies the things which
we see as our highest cultural achievements - ideas about individual autonomy
and rights, free speech, human rights. I don't think that Buddhism was very
successful in promoting these kinds of cultural achievements.

If the cultures of China and India bears the cultural tatoo marks of the
flowering of Buddhism's spiritual "enlightenment", then I certainly wouldn't
reccomend these world views replace our own "selfish" ones that seem to be
functioning capably in the west. Quite frankly, to the extent that Buddhism
ever suggested that the "self is an illusion", in otherwords that self was
ontologically invalid, then it was always wrong. Perhaps that meme
flourished well in the socially claustrophobic empires that relied on that
kind of thinking to stifle "selfish" irritation from the grassroots. Perhaps
the western equivalent was encouraging people that their eternal souls would
be rewarded in the afterlife if they nobly endured the suffering and
sacrifice that was expected of them in THIS life (perhaps a fleeting view of
self rather than an illusory one).

Certainly western culture has augmented this basic template of selfishness
considerably, and in general to very great cultural achievement (that may be
an after the fact assessment on my part, but it is still one that I think
many would agree is valuable). I agree that some of these augmentations may
border into delusion and fantasy. But there is a very real and basic
template of selfishness, an innately emerging pattern of thinking and acting,
underlying both the realities and delusions that people may have about their
"selves". Acknowleging this situation, in no way compels the conclusion that
"self is an illusion". Though SOME of the things that we say ABOUT the
"self" may indeed be delusional, that doesn't mean that there is no self.


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